Nothin’ But Net: A Modest (Holiday) Proposal

by Roger Johns

With the gift-giving season almost upon us, it won’t be long before the economists, those bloodless practitioners of the dismal science, will soon be at it again. They’ll offer to free us from the stress of holiday shopping with their assurances that “studies show” cash is the most efficient gift. Two things about this bother me. First, is the phrase studies show––that dispiriting signifier of the tyranny-of-the-expert under whose shadow we increasingly live. More troubling, though, is the notion that gift-giving should be viewed as an exercise in efficiency.

            Yes, it’s the thought that counts, but if the thought is a cost-benefit analysis, who suffers the cost and who gets the benefit? Given our frenetic lifestyles, should we feel gratified we’ve been thought of at all? Sorry, I’m not buying it. The giver had 365.25 days to come up with something that conveys a warmer message than: ‘Here’s some cash. Buy your own gift.’

            Instead of efficiency, perhaps we should focus on the effect of the gift. I know of no studies validating this approach, but experience tells me the most uplifting presents memorialize connections between giver and recipient, or connect the recipient to some happy or important moment.

            For example, a year after I and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) began dating, I gave her a scrapbook filled with mementos from our time together: the scorecard from our first golf game (she won), the fortune cookie fortune that came true (I won), a handful of pumpkin seeds (don’t ask), and so on. And all the items were linked by a storyline recounting that first year of romance. It was absurdly inefficient, but extremely effective––“then-girlfriend (now-wife)” is your clue.

            Years later, after suffering through repeated tales of my charmed summer at sleep-away camp, my wife secretly arranged for me to relive those days. Until I saw the sign announcing our destination, I had no idea why we had struck out on an hours-long drive into the mountains of northern Alabama where I got to spend a glorious afternoon revisiting a time and a place that had glowed in my memory since childhood. That my unbelievably busy wife would arrange such an extravagantly inefficient adventure left me feeling rather important.

            But, for you unpersuadables still committed to the cash-is-king paradigm, allow me a modest proposal to improve your efficiency. Imagine you’re part of a gift giving group––a family, for instance––and suppose you intend to give your sibling a $100 gift card and your sibling intends to give you a $75 card. Efficiency dictates these amounts should be netted out so you give your sibling $25, and your sibling gives you nothing.

            Because we can all agree that such an outcome violates the spirit of the season by leaving one person looking like a big spender at the expense of the other, you should consider using a gift matching app. The app maintains the anonymity of the givers until all gifts are finalized. Until then, it compares proposed amounts and gently urges low-givers to be more generous: “Someone special wants to give you $50. Why not make them feel just as special by upping your offer to $50?”

            And you’ll never have to worry about an arms race of ever-escalating amounts with each group member jockeying to avoid the stigma of being the cheapskate. As any economist will tell you, and as the app is programmed to suggest, the most efficient approach is to simply offer whatever someone is offering to give you. That way, no one is shamed as low-giver, no one gets to feel superior, and most importantly, all gifts will be netted out to zero, becoming “net gifts”, so no one is troubled with the dreaded inefficiency of giving anyone anything. Plus, if you go big from the get-go you will make everyone feel like a player, because the app will encourage them to match your over-the-top offers, secure in the knowledge that equal gifts negate the need to cough up any cash.

            As an alternative, everyone could simply pretend they’ve gone through all the hassle of matching apps, and gift proposals, and low-giver anxiety and arrived at the inevitable give-no-money conclusion. At this point, freed from the obligation to demonstrate your gift-giving efficiency, you could just spend part of the day (together or on the phone) giving the most important thing you have––your time––to the most important people in your life.

            If you’re still unpersuaded and you still feel the need to play the game, keep in mind that, as a testament to all your hypothetical largesse, the app will generate printable certificates commemorating what you and the special people in your life almost did for each other. And, as the years roll by, imagine what happy campers you’ll be as you page through scrapbooks filled with net-gift certificates.

NOTE: The gift-matching app described above is entirely fictional . . . at least I hope it is.

Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries––Dark River Rising and River of Secrets–– from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. Please visit him at

4 thoughts on “Nothin’ But Net: A Modest (Holiday) Proposal

  1. My husband’s favorite gift by far involved my most elaborate tapestry of lies (even by mystery writer standards), including secreting my tiny convertible at a friend’s house to make more plausible the lie that it was in the shop. This foreshadowed the lie that I needed his SUV for the day and thus had to chauffeur him to work … all so I could later “kidnap” him mid-day under some pretext I have since forgotten (I got his boss in on the ruse) and drive him (and the luggage stowed in the back) to the Philadelphia airport to whisk him off to Seattle for a week-long visit with his sister and her family. The best gifts involve a little (or a lot) of creativity!


  2. Great post for the holiday season. However, as gift recipients mature and become more financially secure, gift giving gets harder and harder. When I was a kid, I talked to my parents daily for a year about an archery bow I wanted. Today, when I want something, I go out and buy it. As you showed, it takes a great deal of creativity to come up with a gift for someone who “has everything,” and can buy things as they need them.


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